WASHINGTON — In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, Democratic senators said Monday that they will seek in the coming days to take up legislation drafted by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would ban gun sales to suspected terrosists.
The measure would allow the attorney general to block the sale of firearms to known or suspected terrorists if there is a “reasonable belief” the weapons may be used to carry out an attack. Currently, convicted felons and fugitives are banned from buying guns, but suspected terrorists are not.
“How many more people have to die at the hands of a terrorist with a gun before the Senate acts?” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a conference call with reporters. “I hope and pray the answer is none.”
The Senate voted down Feinstein's legislation last year after a renewed push following the December shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., where a radicalized couple opened fire at a holiday party killing more than a dozen people.
Republicans have argued there is not enough protection for a person to regain their gun rights if they are banned because of inclusion on a terror watch list. Legislation introduced by GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas that would have allowed federal officials to stop weapons sales after proving probable cause before a judge also failed in December.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told USA TODAY that he would oppose Feinstein’s legislation if it came up for a vote this week. He said it does not provide enough due process for those included because they are on terror watch lists, and that the Orlando shooter wasn’t currently listed and so it wouldn’t have prevented Sunday’s massacre.
Johnson said federal officials instead should increase engagement with Muslim communities in the United States to get more, better intelligence. And at the end of the day, he said the country must defeat the Islamic State.
“I think what we have to do is we’ve got to wipe out ISIS, deny them that territory, destroy that caliphate and then relentlessly be committed to destroying Islamic terror groups wherever they reside,” he said.
As for Congress’s role, Johnson said his committee would investigate any similarities between Orlando and other terror attacks in recent years.
“I think we take a look at all the evidence, and then based on that, we determine whether there’s actually something we can do that would help solve and prevent these problems as opposed to just politicizing them,” he said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on the conference call Monday recounted the horror of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his state, where a shooter gunned down 20 children and six adults in 2012. He said there are many steps Congress could take, including expanding background checks for gun buyers and banning assault weapons like the one used by Omar Mateen Sunday in Orlando to kill 49 people and wound 53 others.
“The time for prayers and platitudes is over,” Blumenthal said. “Mass killings are a public health crisis and this cancer can be stopped.”
President Obama also called for some “soul-searching” about the “risks we are willing to take by being so lax in how we make very powerful firearms available to people in this country.”
He said it’s important to combat ISIS abroad and the spread of their ideology here in the United States but that toughening gun laws is also part of the solution.
“The point is that if we have self-radicalized individuals in this country, then they are going to be very difficult oftentimes to find ahead of time,” he said. “And how easy it is for them to obtain weapons is, in some cases, going to make a difference as to whether they're able to carry out attacks like this or not.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was "heartsick" and "basically sick by our inaction."
"It's shameful the United States Senate has done nothing, nothing to stop these mass shootings," he said, adding that Republicans have voted against an assault weapons ban, a limit on the size of ammunition clips and banning sales to suspected terrorists. "Is this what we want for America? I don’t think so."
But the National Rifle Association said gun control is not the issue.
"Radical Islamic terrorists are not deterred by gun control laws. The San Bernardino terrorist attack wasn’t stopped by California’s so-called 'assault weapons' ban," wrote NRA executive Director Chris Cox in an op-ed for USA TODAY. "Law-abiding gun owners are tired of being blamed for the acts of madmen and terrorists. Semi-automatics are the most popular firearms sold in America for sport-shooting, hunting and self-defense."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday did not mention gun measures but focused instead on the need for a more effective plan to combat the Islamic State. Mateen in 911 calls claimed allegiance to the Islamic State.
"It’s no longer an open analytical question whether the followers of ISIL and other Islamic terrorist groups will attempt to strike us here in the west. They have. And they're going to continue to do so," McConnell said. He said he and other Republicans have been asking the administration to brief them on a better plan "for a very long time."
"I expect this now will happen very soon," he said. In the meantime, McConnell said, "today is a day for sorrow and remembrance."
The office of Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on Monday highlighted a plan unveiled by Ryan last week to keep America safe.
The plan includes rebuilding the military and increasing intelligence collaboration with the private sector. It also calls on Obama to present a more effective plan to defeat the Islamic State.
"Terrorists are on the march, and this administration has allowed radical Islamic groups to gain new momentum," the plan, part of Ryan and House Republicans' new policy platform, states. "We must make it our top national security priority to defeat these organizations — including ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates — and prevail in the war against radical Islamic extremism. "